Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Heroes Of The New Wave: "The Terrible Mister Tolhurst!"

So, the other day I mentioned that I got a lot of mileage out of "Heroes of the New Wave," a game idea Gareth Skarka was working on years before he acquired the Buckaroo Banzai license.  The basic notion, 80s Neo-Pulp was too good to pass up, and while his game didn't make it to publication, that didn't stop me from picking up the concept and running with it (with his blessings).

I initially wrote a one-shot and planned to use a stripped-down version of the HERO System for a Texas RPGnet gathering. Unfortunately, we didn't have as much of a turnout (or space) as we'd hoped, so the game got shelved.  Nonetheless, I'd done a fair bit of work on it, so when I decided to GM something at Owlcon a couple of years later, it was a natural.

But the system had to go.  The previous year, I'd played a bunch of HERO sessions at the con and saw that it could get kind of bogged down, especially with players who were new to the system.  I needed something rules-light, fast, and cinematic.  Something like Feng Shui.  I spent a few numbers playing around with character archetypes, toned down the kung fu in favor of fisticuffs and gunplay, and turned it loose on the 80s.

This was the result:

The premise is fairly simple.  The game takes place in that long-ago time called "The Eighties," when rock star scientists in skinny ties fought the forces of Evil and the music video was mankind's highest artistic achievement.  Basically, "Buckaroo Banzai" meets every Duran Duran video ever made.

The Heroes

Most of the PCs are members of the up and coming New Wave Band, Arms Akimbo.  Of course, there's more to them than just being members of a band.  They're also secret agents in the Hidden Agenda, a shadow war fought beneath the headlines and behind the music.  Working for CURE, an organization headed by the mysterious Mr. Smith, they stand on the front lines between good and evil.

Arms Akimbo are:

Simon: Archaeologist.  Rock star.  International jet-setter.  Covert operative in a secret war for the fate of the world.  How can someone be all of those things, AND gorgeous, and maintain such a down-to-earth approach to life?  Don’t ask Simon, he doesn’t have a clue.  On the other hand, he can tell you where to get the most exquisite curry in Bangladesh, or keep you on pins and needles for hours explaining how he recovered the lost scrolls of Wang Chung.

Billy:  A wise man once said, “Violence is the first recourse of the violent.”  That largely sums up Billy.  He stumbled quite accidentally upon the Hidden Agenda when his first band, Sod-Off Baldrick, ran afoul of the Violence Gang, a crew of English football hooligans who’d been mutated into hideous creatures.  Proving himself useful in that fight, Billy has seen a lot of odd things in this crazy old world, but nothing he hasn’t been able to put an end to with a cricket bat or a shotgun. 

Whirly-Girl:  If it flies, she can fly it.  If it’s got six strings, she can play it.  Whirly-Girl is ten feet of “can-do” attitude in a five foot package.  She’s also handy with a wrench and knows her way around a gun. 

Professor D:  One of the world’s top scientific brains and one of CURE’s most prized weapons in the Hidden Agenda.  The Professor came from humble beginnings, but his dizzying intellect soon catapulted him to the international stage.  Developer of the Digital Extrapolative Virtual Operation, his work allowed the Smart Patrol to work safely in the cryptic computer world of the UnderNet.  With his “Scientific Muse,” the world-renowned supermodel Europa, at his side, he also plays a mean synthesizer. 

J. S. Ulasiewicz, aka "Johnny Slash":  Much like Billy, Johnny stumbled into the Hidden Agenda.  In his case, quite literally, when he fell down a manhole and found the Transcontinental Subway.  Riding the underground at random for a few months eventually found him at a CURE broadcast center, where he proceeded to bombard the greater Sheboygan, Wisconsin area with a steady stream of self-recorded music featuring his band, Open 24 Hours.

Smith recruited him on the spot.

Following them on tour is:

Melody Maker:  The New-Wave Newshound.  Spunky ace reporter for “Video Limelight News” (and its broadcast companion, VNN). “Star” Maker is relentless in her coverage of all things musical and stylish.  When she showed up on Smith’s doorstep demanding an interview about something called the Hidden Agenda, she had him over a barrel.  Cooperate by giving unfettered access to his hottest bands (and agents) and she wouldn’t blow the lid off the story.  Now she’s following Arms Akimbo on their nation-wide tour, ostensibly to cover the band, but really to get more information about this mysterious CURE.

So that's the PCs.  Here's the story:

Arms Akimbo are playing Heebie Jeebies and the place is rockin'.  Or it was, anyway, until the Wild Boys crashed the party.  New Wave-hating punks, they're terrorizing the crowd and trying to rush the stage.  Needless to say, our heroes don't appreciate the interruption and make it clear with fists, boots, guitars, and drumsticks.

During the fracas, Professor D. receives a transmission on his pager (a rather clunky box, but a pager nonetheless).  The camera lingers on the red LED display that reads, "BREAK-IN."  The transmission can only come from the Professor's experimental AI, Miss Sakamoto.  Clearly, his lab is in danger!

Making short work of the remaining Wild Boys, the band (and the ever-present Melody) take to the Tour Bus, Whirly-Girl's signature vehicle, an odd hybrid between a Winnebago and a VTOL aircraft and fly to the scene of the break-in.

While in transit, they receive a transmission from Smith:  Tolhurst has escaped custody and is doubtlessly going to make a try for the Anything Box.  They must stop him from putting it to use, or all mankind will be living in oblivion.

In the Neo-Pulp 80s, scientists dated supermodels.
Upon arrival, it's clear the worst has happened.  Miss Sakamoto is off-line, the Anything Box is missing from the Professor's lab, and worst of all, Europa (the Professor's supermodel girlfriend, his Scientific Muse, if you will) is missing!  Clearly, whoever took the box has kidnapped her as well!

The ensuing investigation reveals a couple of items.  First, Miss Sakamoto was taken off-line by some sort of EMP device.  After a short period, she comes back up and can play back partial security footage.  Clearly the assailants were Skyrates (rhymes with Pirates), a scurrilous crew of airborne mercenaries who strike from their hidden base.  Locating them is problematic.  They seem to use some form of stealth technology and no one really knows where to look for them.  However, some spent shell casings reveal another clue.  They're unique to the very unusual Sigue Sigue Sputnik LMF111 automatic rifle.  There's only one arms merchant that deals in such weapons, the enigmatic J. Division, an emigre from Warsaw.  She's known to hang out at Sprockets, a music venue about two hours away.  To the Tour Bus!

J Division. Arms Merchant
The heroes arrive at Sprockets, a glowing pyramid full of people in black swaying to odd, experimental electronic music.  J. Division is holding court at her usual balcony table.  While the band is terribly out of place here, Melody Maker uses her journalism schtick to ingratiate herself to the beautiful death merchant.  Still, there is such a thing as professional confidentiality and while Ms Division certainly understands "hidden agendas," there are some things one just doesn't talk about.

At that moment, all hell breaks loose.  A flash-bang grenade goes off on the sway floor below, stunning the crowd and even affecting the band.  The sound of breaking glass signals the arrival of a strange figure on a zipline, a man in an oversized white suit wielding two machine pistols.  It's the Psycho-Killer, one of the world's most notorious assassins.  Before our heroes can react, he sprays J. Division's balcony, severely wounding her.  The band manages to put up enough unexpected resistance to drive him off, but not before he's ruined everybody's time.  Ms Division will pull through, though she's barely conscious.  With her last bit of strength, she whispers to the Professor, "Look in the Wastes.  The Skyrates deal with the Renegades.  They're out there...somewhere..."

Once again, air travel is called for.  This time, it's a much more eventful trip.  A transmission breaks into their supposedly secure frequency, "Whirly-Girl, Whirly-Girl, come out and play!" as tracer fire fills the night sky. It's the Skyrates!  A squadron of Stingers, their ultra-fast ultralights is swarming around the Tour Bus.  The heroes take to the gun turrets (of course the bus is armed).  Several Stingers are shot down, but not before one can hit the bus with an EMP missile that shuts down all electronics.  With the help of Billy's muscle, Whirly-Girl manages to bring it in for a dead stick landing without serious harm.

On the plus side, it looks like the same sort of EMP that shut down Miss Sakamoto, so it should wear off.  On the minus side, there are several bullet holes in the fuel tank.  They're easy to patch, but our heroes are going to need fuel, and a lot of it, to get airborne.  If the Renegades were handy, maybe they could barter for gas and information.

Queen Cyn (Like it would be anyone else)
Oh wait, of course the Renegades are here.  Colorful half-civilized nomads who live a lifestyle based on wrestling, motorcycles and dune-buggies, they send their pirate TV broadcasts of the Renegade 'Rasslin Federation around the globe.  And much like the Sioux Nation at Little Big Horn, they have Arms Akimbo surrounded.  The mass of leather-clad savages parts as the "chariot" (a wagon drawn by four motorcycles) of their leader, Queen Cyn arrives on the scene.

Once again, Melody Maker is spot on the scene, reminding Queen Cyn of that time she interviewed her for Video Limelight News.   After a bit of hemming and hawing, Queen Cyn agrees to provide gas and information if Arms Akimbo will take part in a battle of the bands!

The heroes are carted down to The Turbo-Cage, a massive structure of scrap metal and flames, where they face off against the Waste Warriors.  Professor D manages to rig the perimeter to shock anyone who touches it, and his bandmates maneuver them into it.  (Rules-wise, I largely winged this, letting the players describe over-the-top stunts, until it seemed an appropriate time to declare them the victors.)

True to her word, Queen Cyn gives a general location of the Skyrate base.  It's a flying carrier, but it's stealthed.  Fortunately, there are several crashed Stingers near the Bus, and the Professor is able to figure out their stealth technology, adapting it to cover their approach and reveal the Sky-Carrier's location.

En route, they receive another message from Smith.  Strange things are happening throughout the Earth. It's still on a small scale, but Tolhurst is clearly experimenting with the Anything Box. Time is of the essence.

The Pirate Twins!
And thus they proceed to the climax of the tale.  The Skyrate carrier, a massive flying wing crossed with three zeppelins, looms before them.  Undetected, Whirly-Girl crashes the Bus directly through the large windows of the command deck.  Facing them are the Pirate Twins, the leaders of the Skyrates, and a couple dozen minions.  Behind them, on a dais, stands Tolhurst. In his hand, he holds the Anything Box.  At his side...

It's EUROPA!  Indeed, it appears she's changed sides.  Surely it's some form of brainwashing!

All hell breaks loose.  Simon attempts to use his command of strange rituals to counter the Anything Box (he believes it to be a mystic artifact).  Meanwhile, Professor D manages a one in a million leap to clear the Skyrate rabble and run to the dais.  The Pirate Twins unsheathe their cutlasses and lead an attack, in order to give Tolhurst time. Europa merely sneers at the Professor.  He's spent too much time failing to unlock the Anything Box when Tolhurst knew its secrets all along.  Clearly, his mind is vastly superior to the Professor's.

The Terrible Mr. Tolhurst

The Professor uses his SCIENCE! schtick to pull out the device he's been working on for the past two years -- an anti-Anything Box device.  (Yes, it was a cheap gimmick and it was a clear case of the player trying to short-circuit the plot with a rules loophole, but I rolled with it, and described the device as combining forces with Simon's counter-rituals in a heretofore unseen manner.)

Despite their efforts, something untoward occurs.  A rift of some sort opens over the dais.  Awestruck, Tolhurst has the classic "It's beautiful!" moment, only to shriek horribly as an enormous creature, a spider with a human head emerges from the rift and immediately devours him.  The Pirate Twins immediately call off their assault on our heroes and turn their attentions to fighting off this enormous Spider Man.  Bullets prove only marginally effective and it coats a shrieking Europa in vile webbing. Suddenly struck with whatever passes for inspiration in his addled mind, Johnny Slash picks up a piece of shattered window and flings it across the room at the Spider Man, resulting in a truly magnificent shot (the player put a Fortune Point into the attack, which then managed to generate a freakin' +37 bonus to his attack roll) which miraculously sails across the length of the bridge, embedding itself in the Spider Man's head (which now eerily resembles Tolhurst).  The monster falls back through the rift and fades from this reality as the hole in space/time collapses on itself.

A brief exchange with the Pirate Twins tells Whirly-Girl it's time to back the bus up and get the hell out of Dodge.  They'll let her go this time, but they still want her: dead or alive.

Cut to the inevitable final shot of our heroes looking heroic with a caption reading, "The Heroes of the New Wave Will Return, in 'Nobody Walks In LA'."

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